In praise of further education colleges: empowering students who have been written off


Education policy for schools in the UK has become more and more focused around performance. The expectation is that students reach milestones of understanding and learning in each subject. This means that almost a third of young people – those that do not meet these milestones – are effectively written off as also-rans at 16.

Further education colleges pick up the pieces of this overly rigid education system. They challenge the reductive assumptions that underpin it: that some students are academic and others will never be. Colleges help students to take agency and shape their learning in different ways. In doing this, they are a real engine room for social mobility and social justice.

Our recent research, the Transforming Lives project, looks into how further education colleges can reconnect students to education as a meaningful and valuable part of their lives.

Focus on individuals

Teaching methods in further education colleges vary, but they all have a focus on the individual student, their background, their needs and their identities. College teachers recognise that one part of their role is to build students’ sense of themselves as someone who can learn effectively. Teachers then need to connect this educational experience to the wider world of life and work.

We spoke to students at further education colleges as part of our research. Their stories showed that college courses provide routes to overcoming economic, social, political and cultural marginalisation.

Adam, a 16-year-old who had previously been excluded from school, gave us a powerful example of the impact of labelling in school. He explained how he had internalised teachers’ views of him:

I used to think I was dumb all the time in school. I had no hopes at all.

Entering a further education college at 15 meant rediscovering that he could be successful as a learner. His interest in football was encouraged and he had plans and ambitions to coach as a result.

On his first parents’ evening at college, his mother sat and listened to an account of his progress for five minutes before asking: “Are you sure you’ve got the right Adam?” She had become used to receiving calls at work from Adam’s school asking her to come and take him home because of another outburst of temper. Finding success as a learner in college meant that not only his life was transformed, but his family’s was too.

Students rate how important a feeling ‘that they were no good at learning’ was when they began college study. Transformative Teaching and Learning in Further Education, Author provided

Another participant, Anita, in her thirties, talked about being put “in a box” at school, and how the social interactions she had with teachers were shaped by their judgements of her ability. Anita took a social work degree and is now working. She credited the further education teaching she recieved:

My tutors are the ones that got me here … They encouraged me. They never once doubted me.

Both Anita and Adam’s experiences of education were shaped by teachers’ negative judgements earlier in life. In college, both responded to teaching which focuses on building confidence as an essential ingredient.

Building confidence

Both Anita and Adam described how uplifting it was for someone to value them for who they were and recognise the obstacles they had overcome. Along with this recognition came validation. Both described how this empowered them and gave them a feeling of self-worth, inspiring them with confidence and hope for the future.

College teachers achieve these transformative effects by treating students with dignity, respect and care. They begin by focusing on students’ existing knowledge and interests, and encouraging them to share these. Desks are often arranged in groups, as teachers understand the value of on-task talk and group work.

The below chart shows teachers’ responses to the statement “In my teaching, I try to create a learning environment that fosters mutual respect”.

‘In my teaching, I try to create a learning environment that fosters mutual respect.’ Transformative Teaching and Learning in Further Education, Author provided

Teachers often focus on the social aspects of learning, as they build strong relationships and a positive atmosphere in a class. Project or task-based work that involves working across lessons and building to a presentation and/or sharing results is also important.

A different approach

Colleges are constrained by funding pressures and are subject to the same market pressures as schools in terms of results. But what many further education teachers understand is that they have to take a different approach to teaching and learning with young people if they are to be successful. The phrase that so often surfaced in our research across the country from students was that a particular teacher “believed in me”. We must never underestimate the power of a teacher’s belief.

College teachers encourage people who have left school feeling like failures so that they can become successful learners. These students can then harness education to plan a future driven by choice, hope and employment.

Author Bios: Rob Smith is Professor of Education at Birmingham City University and Vicky Duckworth is Professor of Education at Edge Hill University